Japan on the Rails

By Ian Carter


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The Shinkasen Network of bullet trains connects Tokyo station to most of the nation's major cities. Photos: Ian Carter

“It’s impossible! Godzilla absorbed massive amounts of atomic radiation and yet it still survived! What do you think could kill it? Instead, we should focus on why it is still alive. That should be our top priority!”
Kyohei Yamane-hakase
Godzilla, 1954

One of my earliest memories as a schoolboy was a first job as a theatre usher, fully uniformed in a dusty old Odeon uniform and watching Godzilla, the 1954 Japanese science-fiction film, several dozen times as I worked away the hours in my local movie theatre. You may recall that terrible titan of terror died an ugly death at the end, no way to set up 29 sequels over the next 60 years. To my astonishment – and delight – I discovered that the mighty monster is indeed unstoppable as he welcomed me to the Hotel Gracery in Tokyo! This was the first of many surprises that enriched a first visit to Japan.

Getting Ready
This swanky hotel is home to a life-size Godzilla on the patio adjoining its eighth-floor lobby; he is an entertaining, quirky presence in the heart of Shinjuku, just a five-minute walk from the busiest railway station in the world – with over 3.5 million daily passengers – serving the largest city of the world. A glimpse at the map of the Tokyo train/subway network is even more terrifying than our monster – clearly, two weeks in Japan demanded careful preparation!

I arrived in Yokohama/Tokyo at the end of a 30-day Far East cruise and was determined to make the best of my inaugural visit to this city of 37 million people. Early discussions with knowledgeable friends helped create an itinerary before jumping aboard the Shinkansen, that iconic bullet train.

Rail Travel
You must pre-purchase a Japan Rail Pass before departure, either online or at one of the JR Canadian agents. Your voucher comes with a travel guide and network maps that are great planning tools. After arrival in Japan, you are required to exchange the voucher for an official JR Pass that you will then use to secure tickets and seat reservations. Pack lightly – a big problem for me after cruising four seasons – or be forced to take advantage of luggage lockers in train stations and hotels. And remember that reserved seats are advisable on all train journeys - book them all at once after arrival.

Hotels
Hotels in Japan are very expensive, but you can save big dollars using the usual online sources such as hotels.com and trivago.com. Shop carefully if you are concerned about room size with options including tiny pods and capsules, traditional Japanese ryokan (inns) and all the familiar Western-style hotels with the usual amenities. Save travel time and money – taxis are also expensive – by booking hotels close (or attached) to rail stations.

Food
It doesn’t take long to master the art of chopsticks, although a fork and spoon are usually available. Japanese cuisine is a banquet of national, regional and international foods. Although many restaurants are eager to share English menus, most also provide well-photographed menu items from which to select. Staples include rice with miso soup, noodles such as ramen and udon, tempura, dumplings and sushi. Ramen shops often have vending machines just inside the door where you select and purchase your food and drink, then simply deliver up your receipt to the cashier. Alcohol is quite pricey, but local beers and sake are part of the adventure.

Money – ATMs
Many ATMs do not dispense local currency on foreign cards, but I was never disappointed at 7-11 stores or local post offices.

My Itinerary
With just two weeks available, I was driven to see as much as I could. After four nights in Tokyo, I booked trains for two- and three-night stays in three other cities… those famous bullet trains cover most of the country and whisk you to your destination – on time and in comfort - at speeds up to 320km/h.

Tokyo

Count on JP Travel and Viator to save tired feet with an excellent choice of coach trips. Hotel pickups and highly professional guides eased my way to the top of Tokyo Tower, glimpses of the Imperial Palace, and a visit to the Asakusa Shrine, one of the city’s most beautiful and loved shrines dating to 1649.

Japan's iconic Mt. Fuji is notoriously shy, hiding behind clouds 70 per cent of the time. She occasionally changed her mind as I travelled from my Tokyo hotel… and what a 12-hour journey it was – by bus, boat, cable car and Shinkansen. We lunched on ramen, shared a few Fujiyama cookies, and met that mountain face to face… she's a beauty!

Hiroshima

Hiroshima is just four-and-a-half hours by train from Tokyo Station and home to two UNESCO World Heritage sites. The Atomic Bomb Dome and Peace Museum convey the horrific suffering inflicted by the first atomic bomb in human history dropped on August 6, 1945. The explosion of a single bomb claimed the lives of over 200,000 people. The ruins shall be preserved forever as a lesson for humankind: “Our cry… our prayer… for building peace in this world,” a poignant message during this period of escalating world tension.

The second UNESCO site is the astonishing Itsukushima Shrine, an easy ferry ride to Miyajima Island, built on the seashore where the tide ebbs and flows. The contrast of the blue sea, green hills and the vivid vermilion-lacquered shrine is breathtakingly beautiful.

Kyoto via Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle is an easy walk from the Himeji train station and well worth a few hours before moving on to Kyoto. This stunning castle is Japan’s preeminent wooden structure, a white plaster building of unparalleled beauty – get there early to avoid long queues.

I was astonished by the sheer size and futuristic design of Kyoto Station - it is among the finest in the world and stands in perfect contrast to the usual image of Kyoto as the capital of traditional Japan. The 15 floors of glass and steel is the transportation hub of the city, home to shopping malls, visitor information centres, museums, an art gallery, hotels, and restaurants everywhere.
 
Kyoto is especially beautiful in late March when plum and cherry blossoms frame stunning shrines, Nijo-jo Castle and the Imperial Palace. A tram ride to popular Arashiyama delivered up kimonos and delicious okonomiyaki for lunch. As a retired educator, I was delighted to meet up with schoolgirls, dressed for their junior high school graduation, visiting local shrines and temples to pray – and take selfies - and pay – and take selfies – all for good luck. I was blessed by their excited presence in Kyoto's Bamboo Grove, where walking among the soaring stalks of bamboo is an otherworldly experience.

Takayama

Takayama is the perfect city to bring this journey to an end. It is traditional Japan at its best, far from the urban chaos with an impressively preserved old town, beautifully situated in the mountainous Hida region northwest of Tokyo. A Food and Culture Walking Tour immediately after arrival introduced us to such local shops as a sake brewery, a miso maker, specialized sweets, the morning market and a cozy restaurant. Takayama is a special place.

A final high-speed train hastened my return to Tokyo, where I once again shared digs with the great Godzilla before flying home. Steven Spielberg, creator of Jurassic Park, has described the 1954 film as “the most masterful of all dinosaur movies.” It’s also clear that the love Japan and the kids felt for the creature literally evolved Godzilla into a national hero. I’m with the kids.

SOME JAPANESE SURPRISES!
There were moments when I thought I’d never left home with KFC and 7-11 stores on every corner, and then there were other surprises.

Pack Your Best Manners:
Queue-jumping is an absolute no-go, eat up since finishing everything on your plate is a sign of respect, shoes off when entering a Japanese-style room with straw tatami mats, throw your rubbish in the bin or bring it home, respect the traffic lights and cross only at a zebra-crossing… the reason will become clear.

Etiquette:
Bowing is a very important feature of Japanese etiquette and can be seen everywhere, from train crews as they enter and leave each coach, to shopkeepers and, well everyone! Warm towelettes precede many meals, and train crews, hotel staff, shopkeepers, and even street cleaners proudly sport crisp uniforms. Turn your mobile phone to silent mode and use whispered conversation only on public transit. Westerners have much to learn about civility.

Toilets:
Yes, there is a squat version in many locations, but the high-tech versions are astonishing – separate spray and bidet functions may require some practice!

Language:
When in doubt, ask any young person for assistance – they are usually eager to practice their English.

IF YOU GO:
Japan Rail Pass and Tours:
www.jtb.ca/eweb/jrpass/alljrpass.aspx

Tours and Activities:
www.viator.com/Japan/d16-ttd

Ian Carter is a retired educator and mental health professional, published author, inveterate world traveller, freelance writer, and photographer. He has been a Tour Director with work and travel experiences in 29 countries and is delighted to share travel adventures, insights and practical tips with other Canadians determined to live a lot. heritagematters@bellaliant.net

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